Reading Nation
Meeting of the Multi-Tiered Mind(sets) to Improve Student Outcomes

By Allison Bruhn, Assistant Professor of Special Education, University of Iowa

Having consulted and trained many schools in designing, implementing, and evaluating Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), one thing I am finding is a new focus on developing growth mindsets.  That said, I’ve had teachers and administrators ask how MTSS and growth mindsets can co-exist when they seem to be competing initiatives?  Generally, this debate centers around the MTSS framework for Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS).

PBIS is a tiered system in which all students in a school are taught core behavioral expectations for every setting in the building.  This instructional approach to social and behavioral skills is done in such a way that all students, regardless of risk or need, are provided a clear, consistent, and safe environment.  This is critical because we know from decades of research that students learn better in positive and safe schools!  Along the way, students are recognized for doing the right thing and meeting expectations.  For students who need additional supports, data are used to identify these students, match them to interventions that meet their needs, and monitor their progress.  The idea is that clear expectations, lots of feedback, and the use of data to drive decisions, students will have the best opportunity for success.

Developing growth mindsets, on the other hand, is about teaching students that their actions have a direct connection to their outcomes.  That is, they must work hard to persist when things are difficult.  And, this persistence will help them experience success.  This is different from a fixed mindset in which students view their ability like their eye color or height—unchangeable.  In this case, students with a fixed mindset see very little reason to try.  Getting students to demonstrate a growth-, rather than a fixed-, mindset requires teachers to provide instruction about how the brain functions, establish a positive classroom environment, and give appropriate feedback and support.

Although these initiatives, programs, or frameworks (whatever you would like to call them!) may not focus on the exact same components of effective academic and behavioral instruction, they do share some common ideas that allow them to co-exist in a single school.  Beyond their grounding in sound empirical research, both PBIS and growth mindsets share a focus on clear expectations, feedback, and differentiated instruction.

1.      Clear Expectations: In classrooms, academic and behavioral expectations must be taught explicitly, modeled, and reinforced. Expectations for learning might be content-based (e.g., By the end of the day, you will be able to…) or performance-based (e.g., I know you will put forth your best effort today).  Expectations for behavior focus on examples of what it means to “be respectful” during whole-group instruction or to “be ready” for math.  Communicating expectations to students clearly provides them with an idea or goal of what they should be trying to achieve.

2.      Feedback: As Hattie (2009) described in his book, Visible Learning, feedback is one of the most powerful influences on academic achievement.  So, it isn’t enough to just establish clear expectations; teachers must provide feedback about how students are meeting those expectations.  This could be corrective feedback, instructive feedback, or specific praise.  Although praise seems like a pretty basic concept, research has shown that the nuances of how teachers deliver praise can have a big effect on student effort and behavior.  Praise should be sincere and specific, as it is ineffective if it is highly effusive or overly general.  In other words, saying “good job” is not enough.  What did the student do a good job with?  Praise also should focus on the process rather than the person.  For instance, rather than saying, “You are a great problem-solver” (person-centered), a teacher might say, “You used great strategies to solve those problems!”  When praise is done well, students can increase their intrinsic motivation, self-confidence, and in turn, they are more likely to persist when things become more difficult.

3.      Data-Driven Differentiated Instruction: In multi-tiered systems, data such as academic assessments and the number of office discipline referrals (ODRs) are used to identify students who need intervention beyond the universal level of instruction.  For instance, students who are reading below grade level according to a benchmark assessment may be put into a targeted reading intervention.  This should provide the student with an opportunity to experience success, show growth, and in turn, continue to see how effort impacts outcomes.  However, for some students with additional behavioral concerns as evidence by multiple ODRs, they may need an even further differentiated plan that involves behavioral supports such as self-monitoring imbedded into the reading intervention.  By providing differentiated instruction that meets both academic and behavioral needs, students have a better chance of success!